Ruth Prawer Jhabvala CBE
b. 1927 – d. 2013
Ruth Prawer was born in Cologne to a Polish father and German mother. The family relocated to Britain in 1939. She married Cyrus Jhabvala in 1951 and they moved to Delhi, after 1975 splitting their time between India and New York. Although perhaps best known for her screenwriting, her love of writing books superseded her success in that field. She remains the only person to win both a Booker Prize and an Oscar.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala CBE remembered – by Catherine Freeman
My first encounter with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died aged 85 in April 2013, was in Old Delhi in 1958, where by pure chance we lived next door to each other. On my second day there, a birdlike young woman came up the path and asked if I had brought any books with me. I had packed a few favourites but when she inspected them she cried indignantly, ‘This is no good – I’ve already got all these!’ And so our lifelong friendship began.
Ruth was 30 then, happily married to a witty, good-looking architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and the mother of three small daughters, Renana, Ava and Feroze. She had met Jhab at London University. She married him in 1951 and followed him to India, delighted to exchange austerity Britain for the warmth and colour of India, which she loved on sight: the music, the wide skies, the jasmine wreaths, the sweets which she was to crave for the rest of her life. It was here that she made a life-changing friendship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who – admiring her novel The Householder (1960) – invited her to collaborate with them on their films.
She was already writing fiction on a daily basis, for three hours in the morning, and after lunch reading on her bed. Other people looked after the children, the house, the meals. Her priorities were thus established and never changed. Although she was to become celebrated for her work with Merchant Ivory Productions – winning Oscars for her screenplays of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992) – she shrugged off that success. ‘The films are fun but…I live in and for the books.’
She was fortunate to find a publisher from the outset. John Murray was hugely enthusiastic about the work and he, his wife Diana and his son Hallam became her friends for life. In all she produced twelve novels, five collections of short stories – and many more for the New Yorker and other magazines – and 22 screenplays. She was elected a Fellow of the RSL in 1974, received the Booker Prize the following year for her novel Heat and Dust (becoming the only person to win both the Booker and an Oscar) and a MacArthur Lifetime Award in 1984, and was appointed CBE in 1998. Yet for all these achievements she was not widely known, which in fact suited her, for she was an intensely private person. ‘As an artist or writer you’re much more your work than you are yourself,’ she said.
Her early novels, such as To Whom She Will (1955) and The Nature of Passion (1956), reflected her affection and enthusiasm for India; but gradually her tone darkened and her stories turned into satirical accounts of dubious gurus and gullible Westerners (How I Became a Holy Mother, 1976). Over the years she fell out of love with the place, now seeing only its poverty and corruption. She contracted jaundice and suffered from asthma, caused by the Delhi smog. It was during this time of disillusion that she wrote Heat and Dust, which put her decisively on the literary map; it was also when she stopped wearing saris and seemed to need to reclaim her earlier self, saying, ‘I am a Central European with an English education. I am irritable and have weak nerves.’
This bleak self-description veiled a personal history about which she never spoke, except once in a speech accepting the Neil Gunn Literature fellowship in 1979. It is a key text in understanding her and her formation as a writer. In it she said: ‘I feel disinherited even from my own childhood memories, so that I stand before you without any ground of being as a writer out of which to write, really blown about from country to country, culture to culture till I feel – I am – nothing. I’m not complaining…As it happens, I like it this way. It’s made me into a cuckoo forever insinuating myself into others nests.’
Her delivery of this lecture, which she called ‘Disinheritance’, was electrifying. This fragile, unassuming woman, whose speaking voice was seldom above a murmur, and who shunned public occasions, was transformed before our eyes into a kind of seeress. She spoke in an extraordinary vatic tone, deep and resonant, which made the hair on the back of our necks stand up and which those who heard it would never forget. She began with an account of her early life.
Ruth Prawer was Jewish, born in Cologne in 1927 to Markus Prawer, a Polish lawyer, and Eleanore Cohn, whose father was chief cantor of the city’s largest synagogue. For the first five years she lived happily in an assimilated, patriotic German Jewish household. In 1933 the Nazis came to power, and after Kristallnacht in November 1938 Ruth’s segregated school was closed, her grandfather’s synagogue was burned down, and there were wholesale round-ups for the concentration camps. Markus Prawer’s Polish birth and contacts helped him escape the ‘cannibals’, as he called the Nazis. He found a Polish-born British citizen to sponsor his family’s immigration to England at the last possible moment in April 1939. He and Eleanore, their son Seigbert (later to become Taylor Professor of German at Oxford) and their twelve-year-old daughter eventually found their way to a quiet north London suburb.
Here Ruth adopted her second country and her second language which she learnt almost overnight. She was transformed into a bookish English schoolgirl, discovering and embracing all the great English writers – Austen, Dickens, Hardy and Lawrence – and starting to write herself. When the War ended, Jewish families learned of the fate of their relatives in occupied Europe. Eleanore’s parents, sister and young nephew had died in concentration camps in Holland, as had all 40 of Markus’s family. His mother was killed in Poland when the Nazis occupied Czestohowa. In 1948, when he discovered this, Markus Prawer committed suicide.
Ruth’s mother supported her emotionally through the painful time and helped her to concentrate on her studies at Hendon County School and after at London University, where she read English and met her husband-to-be. Twenty years later, Ruth, having become so unhappy in India, decided to leave – not to return to Europe, which, she said, ‘would forever smell of blood’, but to move on to a third continent, America, where she felt safe. She was granted US citizenship and went to live in the same New York apartment block as Ismail and Jim. Her beloved Jhab eventually joined her there and they looked after each other with great devotion to the end of her life.
Ruth Jhabvala was a complex person: the centre of a loving circle of family and friends, speaking to them daily on the telephone, radiating warmth and empathy; and at the same time a fiercely solitary artist , guarding her privacy with steely determination and boldly acknowledging her priorities, admitting, ‘I am only alive for the three hours in which I write each day.’ She recalled her first memory of writing, at school in Germany aged six, when she was told to compose a story about a hare: ‘I wrote the title, Der Hase. At once I was flooded with my destiny only I didn’t know what it was…to think that such happiness could be.’
The first piece of her writing to be actually published was a pamphlet for Mass Observation called When the Doctor Calls, written in 1949: a serious little piece by a serious young woman in a drab, postwar Britain. (I’m indebted to Ava Jhabvala Wood for this hitherto unknown information.) Only a year later, she was gloriously transplanted to India, where she started at once to work on her first novel. According to her husband, she was out in the garden writing on the day after she arrived in Old Delhi. Once there, she preferred to stay at home, in her ‘hushed lair,’ as she described it to me in an early letter, although she enjoyed being brought news and stories from the outside world with all its foibles and follies, for she loved being made to laugh, often to the point of tears.
Her own sense of humour was dry and knowing, and sometimes compared to Jane Austen’s; but in its absence of illusion, it was Jane Austen writing for an altogether darker time. An example of this is Parasites, published in the New Yorker in 1978: a horror story set in a Manhattan brownstone, where a wealthy woman is dying and vulnerable to the greedy, cruel and sexually perverse hangers-on who circle round her. The narrator’s voice is dispassionate, clinical even, and retains its power to shock, however often it is read.
During the latter part of her life, while continuing with the films (The Remains of the Day, Mr and Mrs Bridge, The Golden Bowl), she was still living ‘in and for the books’. Now she concentrated on short stories: collections – Three Continents (1987), East into Upper East (1998) – and stories for the New Yorker. She wrote to me in 2011 saying: ‘I don’t know if I can write any more, but I suppose one goes on till one drops, having got into the habit.’ And: ‘Publishing is no fun for me any more: the only pleasure left in it is to be able to offer the writing to one’s old friends…with gratitude for them being there and having always been there’.
Gratitude recurs as the dominant emotion she felt for the country which gave her refuge as a child. This coolest and least sentimental of writers acknowledged her debt freely: ‘Without England I would have no memories,’ she said. And shortly before she died she dictated the following bequest:
I would like all the papers relating to my prose writing to be donated to the British Library in London. This is in deep gratitude for my life (1939), the wonderful education they gave me, the English language itself, my great love of reading and trying to write, all of which have sustained me throughout my life. Thank you all very much. RPJ 17.2 13.
Catherine Freeman is a former television producer and member of the Arts Council’s literature panel.